Our favorite science fiction and fantasy films seem to have burst into existence fully formed, already perfect. So it's weird when you realize that a lot of the best movies had the biggest false starts and dead ends. Here are 12 much-loved movies that had very different storylines early on in their creation.
Top image: The Star Wars by Dark Horse Comics, based on original art by Ralph McQuarrie.
1. Star Wars
"Star Wars," George Lucas told film magazine Chaplin in 1973, "is a mixture of Lawrence of Arabia, the James Bond films and 2001. The space aliens are the heroes, and the Homo Sapiens naturally the villains." Indeed, the original Star Wars concept ran the risk of being a bit too much like Lawrence of Arabia, or A Man Called Horse, in space. Luke, at one point, fought and beat a Wookiee "chief." According to Lucas, "He wins the fight and the Wookiee says, okay, you are going to be the son of the chief, and all that." Luke, Ben and Han trained the Wookiees — "noble savages," says Lucas — to fight the Empire. At this stage, though, during the filming of American Graffiti, the Wookiees were short and furry. Actor Charlie Martin Smith remembers, "Richard Dreyfuss and I kept begging George to let us play them. […] Then, he turned around and made the Wookiees seven feet tall, which knocked me out of the running for that part." A Wookiee battle was part of the script in this version, which is probably a source for the apocryphal story that the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to have been fought by Wookiees. While most of the changes in the filmed version are definite improvements (less of the "noble savage," thank goodness) some are regrettable. In the first full script draft, Luke Skywalker was the much more badass Starkiller, and Han Solo was a green lizard alien — as you can see in Dark Horse's comics series The Star Wars. (And of course, one early idea for Return of the Jedi involved Luke turning to the Dark Side and becoming the new Emperor.)
2. The Truman Show
The script for this film was inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, "Special Service," about a man who discovers his life is a tv show. The Truman Show — initially called The Malcolm Show —was imagined as a science fiction thriller. Although Brian DePalma was attached to early versions of the project, Paramount eventually brought in Peter Weir, who shared with the studio a vision for a lighter and more comedic version of the film. Screenwriter Andrew Niccol allegedly wrote twenty-four drafts before Weir was satisfied with the script. Niccol's later film, Gattaca, which he wrote and directed, kept the darker, weirder sensibility he originally conceived for The Truman Show.
3. The Wizard of Oz
When MGM started production on the film, they hired at least three screenwriters, one of whom was Ogden Nash, to create treatments. However, MGM let each writer think he was the only one on the project. The earliest treatment for the 1939 film hews close to a 1925 short film version in its Depression-era aesthetic. It minimized the fantastical elements of Oz, and made the major characters purely allegorical. The Scarecrow was just an astonishingly stupid man, and the Tin Man was a criminal whose metal suit was his punishment.
Dan Aykroyd's original concept saw "Ghostsmashers" traveling through time, space, and alternate dimensions to fight huge ghosts — the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is the only one that survived. When Ivan Reitman came on board he scaled the project down considerably in order to save on costs. The "smashers" themselves were also a little more like Jedi Knights than working-class exterminators. Early storyboards show them wearing SWAT style helmets and using wands rather than proton packs. Image via Ghostbusters Wiki.
5. Jurassic Park
Even before the novel came out, Michael Crichton started working on a screenplay in which a grad student recreates the dinosaurs, which predictably run amok. Although Crichton was the author of the first draft, Steven Spielberg brought in several successors to tone down violence, exposition, and character development, and to rewrite scenes that were deemed too expensive to film. Two of these: a sequence with Procompsognathus attacking the children, and another with the T. Rex chasing Grant and the children down a river, were added in subsequent sequels.
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
First titled Experiences and then Watch the Skies, and then Kingdom Come and featuring flying saucers landing on L.A.'s Robertson Boulevard, one producer described an early treatment as "the worst idea I ever heard." Steven Spielberg tried out several collaborators. Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), brought Spielberg a screenplay that the director described as "embarrassing," focusing on a 45-year-old Air Force officer whose job is to ridicule and debunk UFO claims. At one point this character became a police officer, at another, in a script by John Hill (Quantum Leap), the screenplay was closer to James-Bond-with-Aliens. David Giler, who worked with Dan O'Bannon on Alien, also did a rewrite. Finally some friends suggested the kidnapped-child plot, and Spielberg ended up with the sole writing credit on this film.
Source: Steven Spielberg: A Biography
7. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
After he completed Close Encounters, Spielberg started working on Night Skies, a science fiction horror film featuring a gang of evil aliens led by the evil Scar, who kills cattle just by touching them with his long, bony finger. Only one of Scar's ten followers is benevolent: an alien named Buddy, who gets abandoned by his evil comrades and befriends a young autistic boy. Spielberg decided this concept of evil aliens was xenophobic and he "must have taken leave of my senses" in developing it. So he threw out everything except Buddy the friendly alien, who became E.T.
Despite being a silent film, this earliest of science fiction epics went through multiple rewrites. The novel was written by Fritz Lang's then-wife, Thea Von Harbou, with the express purpose of being turned into a film. But some key themes, like magic and occultism, were dropped from the script along the way. In one scrapped ending, the hero, Freder, flies up into the stars. While this was eventually excluded, it became the basis for Lang's later science fiction film "Woman in the Moon."
9. Monsters Inc.
Audiences won't even recognize the original pitch for this movie. According to Pete Docter:
"My idea was that what it was about was about a 30 year old man who is like an accountant or something, he hates his job, and one day he gets a book with some drawings in it that he did when he was a kid from his mom, and he doesn't think anything of it and he puts it on the shelf and that night, monsters show up. And nobody else can see them. He thinks he's starting to go crazy, they follow him to his job, and on his dates, and all this— and it turns out these monsters are fears that he never dealt with as a kid."
In another version, Sulley was just a supporting character, and the main character would have been George Sanderson, an incompetent scarer who can't do his job — until a timid little girl who's terrorized by her brothers teaches him to be scary. (You can still see George in the movie — he's the shaggy brown-furred monster who keeps getting caught by the CDA for "2319" emergencies.
10. Iron Man
The Mandarin was supposed to be the villain in the very first Iron Man movie. According to Kevin Feige, this classic villain "was in every Iron Man 1 script until about 10 weeks before we started filming." And he was supposed to be sort of an evil version of Tony Stark, and Tony's business rival. And Obadiah Stane would have been a relatively minor villain who helps the Mandarin out. In the end, this Mandarin was scrapped for Jeff Bridges' diabolical Obadiah Stane, and Ben Kingsley's very different take on the character in Iron Man 3. Also, early drafts of Joss Whedon's Avengers screenplay featured the Wasp instead of Black Widow — but Whedon enjoyed writing Janet Van Dyne too much, and ended up with scripts that were "way too Wasp-y." Whedon also kept including a second villain, because he didn't think Loki was enough to carry the movie.
This project saw numerous writers, working on it throughout the 1990s. For a long time, the main plot of this film was about Magneto trying to take over Manhattan and turn the island into a mutant refuge. In the 1994 draft by Andrew Kevin Walker, Magneto destroys most of the bridges and floods the tunnels, making Manhattan nearly inaccessible, and then gives this speech:
Manhattan, in case you hadn't noticed, has been brought to its knees. Your subways are flooded, your tunnels blocked... Your bridges, from Sixtieth Street to Battery Park, are in ruins. And, the question issuing from the meek mouth of humankind is, "Why, oh why has this bad fate befallen us?" Well, let my answer be carried to the ends of the earth. Because you would not give us a place in your world, we have taken this one small piece. From this day on, the isle of Manhattan no longer belongs to man. It now belongs to me and to mine. To mutants. All those of the human persuasion will be banished, while mutants are welcomed... free to live in peace and solitude, away from baseless discrimination, oppression, and prejudice.
Magneto leaves bridges in and out of Harlem still standing for another five days, to allow humans to leave the city. The government prints pamphlets that say ""MANDATORY EVACUATION! WHY YOU MUST LEAVE." And then there's a montage of bedraggled humans fleeing New York, to the tune of Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan." While Blob and Sabretooth laugh and drop pennies off the Empire State Building. Walker's draft also included the Sentinels and Bolivar Trask. And we learned that Magneto had caused the Chernobyl disaster the first time he and Xavier met (a detail that the writers of Wolverine must have filed away for the future). A version by Joss Whedon that used the Danger Room and featured Jean Grey as Phoenix was rejected because 20th Century Fox didn't like Whedon's witty dialogue.
12. The Lego Movie
An earlier screenplay is a very different, although just as allusive and funny, take on cinematic tropes as the filmed version. This one starts out with Indiana Jones failing to keep the Kragle out of the hands of villain The Black Falcon, and then follows Emmet, who lives just across the hall from his control-freak mom, who's a secret Master Builder and the Chosen One. In the original script version, Emmet isn't a dull conformist at all — in fact, he's unable to suppress his creativity, creating a weird smiley face instead of following the Instructions when he's on a construction job. Emmet's uncontrolled creativity lands him in jail, but his mother breaks him out — and then, she's captured by robot ninjas. Emmet and his ex-girlfriend, a MasterBuilder-in-training codenamed Gemini, slip through a dimensional portal that takes them through alternate pop-culture universes, including a stop in The Lord of the Rings' Shire, and the Star Wars universe where they pick up R2D2 and precipitate a meeting between Lego Indy and Lego Han. Oh, and the president in this version is named President Iamnotarobot.